NFC West: Chris Borland

The injury bug that has decimated the San Francisco 49ers' linebacker corps has now taken a bite out of the most heralded backup. Rookie Chris Borland, who has flourished as Patrick Willis' replacement, is now also possibly lost for the season with an injury to his left ankle suffered in the Niners' 17-7 loss at the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Borland
"It would be a stretch right now," Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Tuesday when asked if Borland would play again this season.

Also, the availability of outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who leads the Niners with six sacks but suffered a left thumb injury against the Seahawks, is uncertain.

Earlier Tuesday, the 49ers signed linebacker Desmond Bishop and placed receiver/special teams ace Kassim Osgood on season-ending injured reserve in the corresponding roster move. The Niners also announced the practice squad signings of tight end Xavier Grimble and cornerback Cameron Fuller.

The 49ers already had a pair of linebackers on their practice squad in Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas but instead chose to sign Bishop, who was released by the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 1.

"We've just got to do our best to get him acclimated to the system," Fangio said. "He's going to have to do a great job of studying. Obviously, his work day is going to have to be a lot longer than everybody else's. Not on the field, per se, but studying in the classroom and watching tape and learning what he needs to learn to go out there and play for us on Saturday if needed."

The 6-feet-2, 244-pound Bishop, a sixth-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers out of Cal in 2007, has started 27 of the 73 games in which he's played and has been credited with 318 tackles, nine sacks, seven forced fumbles and nine passes defensed. After six seasons in Green Bay, Bishop played for the Minnesota Vikings in 2013 before going to Arizona this season.

Fangio was also asked his thoughts on the play of Borland, who replaced Willis in Week 6 and has a team-leading 107 tackles.

"He's done extremely well," Fangio said of Borland. "He started off, when he came in for Pat late in the second quarter of that first game [at St. Louis] he played, he kind of just played and did fine. Then the next game, which was his first start [at Denver], he didn't play as well. And then from that point on, he has taken off and done well. He still makes some mistakes, still doesn't react well to certain plays and certain coverages the way he should consistently enough, but I think that will come.

"And, you know, I think we've got a player that nobody was so sure ... he could play at his collegiate level in the pros, and with his work this year he's proven that he can to some degree."
SANTA CLARA, Calif. –- Justin Smith is entering the home stretch of his standout 14-year career.

He’s just not sure if he’ll return to the San Francisco 49ers for a 15th season…yet.

Smith
“To be honest, I haven’t given it any thought,” Smith said this week. “It will be something I think about after the season.

“Hopefully we can get this thing rolling, get back on track and make a run at it.”

Smith, who plays end in the Niners’ base 3-4 defense, is tied with linebackers Ahmad Brooks and rookie Aaron Lynch for the team lead in sacks with five. The 35-year-old Smith has also taken advantage of having a veteran’s day off on Wednesdays from practice and has been taking Thursdays off as well to keep him fresh.

It’s paying off, though defensive coordinator Vic Fangio insists the breaks are not the difference. Smith being healthy is the key.

“Last year, he was playing with half an arm,” Fangio said. “I forget which arm it was. I think it was his left. This year, he’s playing with a healthy body.

“I actually see a better player than last year because of the health. And I’m sure he’s down a decibel or two from where he was in 2011, but not very much. It would be a shame if he did retire for all of us because he’s still playing at a very high level. I expect him to make the Pro Bowl again, and expect you guys to lead the charge five years when he’s done playing to get him up in Canton.”

Yes, as in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, after five (and counting) Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro selection. A partially torn triceps late in 2012 hindered him before he suffered a shoulder injury in training camp in 2013.

This year? As Fangio said, Smith has been healthy. And rested come Sundays.

This weekend, the 7-5 Niners will try to steady themselves against the Oakland Raiders, who have the worst record in the NFL at 1-11.

“I know I’m going against Donald Penn,” Smith said, “and he’s a heck of a football player. Everybody else can take them lightly, but the players in the locker room know what we’re up against.”

And Fangio knows how tough the road would be next season if Smith decides to retire. So he’s already scheming to bring him back.

“If I have to go to Missouri and drink a beer with him, I’ll do that,” Fangio said.

Added rookie linebacker Chris Borland: “I’ll be on the same flight.”

The defense, with Smith leading the charge, is already on the same page.
Just as the San Francisco 49ers start to get reinforcements on the defensive side of the ball -- outside linebacker Aldon Smith’s nine-game suspension is over -- their defense took another hit with All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis being placed on season-ending injured reserve with a toe injury on Tuesday.

Still, the roster hit might not be as severe a Super Bowl-crippling blow as imagined. Not with the recent play of Willis’ replacement.

Borland
Rookie Chris Borland has started in place of Willis the past three games, and two weeks ago, in a loss to the St. Louis Rams, Borland had 18 tackles. He followed that up with 17 tackles in Sunday’s overtime victory at the New Orleans Saints.

Granted, there are few linebackers in the league with Willis’ pedigree -- seven Pro Bowls, five first-team All-Pro selections -- but Borland has proved a steady replacement, at least with a small sample size.

“Fun to watch,” Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said of Borland. “He’s doing a great job. He does have a ... he’s got a sense for the ball. I've been watching it in practice and you watch it in the games. He’s like a thief in the night. He’s going to get under somebody, get around somebody.”

It was Borland who recovered Drew Brees’ fumble after Ahmad Brooks’ strip-sack, which enabled the Niners to kick the game-winning field goal Sunday.

“You look how far he went to get that fumble,” Harbaugh said of Borland. “He was the furthest guy away from that pile, that point where the ball was, and slashed in there and then secured it.”

Willis injured his left big toe at St. Louis on Oct. 13 and seemed to be on track to returning, practicing in a limited capacity two weeks ago before being shut down last week.

Willis had taken over play-calling duties from NaVorro Bowman, who is continuing his rehab from January’s devastating left knee injury. Now, Michael Wilhoite is calling the defensive plays, while Borland helps make up for Willis’ absence in other ways.

“[Borland is] in on a lot of tackles, covering a lot of ground,” Harbaugh said. “He plays the game. It means a lot to him. He cares. You can see that by the way he plays and is doing an outstanding job.”

Still, you have to wonder whether the loss of Willis accelerates Bowman’s return. Harbaugh did say there was a chance Bowman could begin practicing this week.
The Denver Broncos' Julius Thomas represents the NFL’s new wave of athletic, but powerful tight ends. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, nine of his 24 receptions in five games have scored touchdowns.

“Big body, good receiver,” San Francisco 49ers strong safety Antoine Bethea mused this week in the locker room. “All the tight ends nowadays in this league, you know, big bodies. It’s tough to get around them.

Thomas
“Week in and week out, we’re starting to see more of these type tight ends, big bodies, wide radius range of being able to catch the ball. Just got to go out there battle and have fun.”

And with inside linebacker Patrick Willis likely out with a toe injury, how will the San Francisco 49ers defend Thomas? With a safety like Bethea, or Willis’ likely replacement, undersized 5-11 rookie Chris Borland?

“Well, it will be a mix,” said Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “When you [face] a tight end like him, some people think you’re crazy if you don’t put a DB on him. Then the next guy will think you’re crazy because of the size mismatch if you don’t have a linebacker on him.

“That’s what these good tight ends do; they cause you problems. So it will be a mix of who’s on him for us.”

Fangio said Borland has practiced well against Niners backup tight end Vance McDonald, but could not recall him facing Vernon Davis all that much.

And if Borland is in the game, Fangio does not anticipate keeping Borland away from Thomas.

“You can a little bit, but ultimately, you’ve got to play your package, you know?” Fangio said. “If you start tinkering here and there to cover up somebody’s perceived deficiencies, that just leads to problems other places, too. You've got to be able to play.”
Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.

LINEBACKERS (7)

Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.

CORNERBACKS (5)

This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.

SAFETIES (5)

Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.

SPECIALISTS (3):

This group is set and it's excellent.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Wrapping up the final day of the San Francisco 49ers' mandatory minicamp:

A lot has been made about the structure of the new contract quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed through 2020. He is guaranteed $13 million through a unique structure. But if Kaepernick plays well, he should rank in the top five quarters of the league. Kaepernick made it clear Thursday he has no problem with the contract.

"You can skew things however you want," Kaepernick said. "At the end of the day, a lot of the way the contract is set up is how every other quarterback's contract is set up. The things that aren't set up like those contracts are because we wanted them that way so we could sign other players. It was very deliberate by my agents, the organization and myself that we wanted things done this way, so we could keep a solid team here."

Fourth-round pick, receiver Bruce Ellington had a nice minicamp. He impressed his new quarterback, which is important.

"Bruce has been amazing out here," Kaepernick said of Ellington. "He's picked thing up very quickly. Good route runner. Very good feel for the game and he's made plays when we've given him the opportunity."

Harbaugh had some interesting things to say about his linebacker crew. The team will likely miss star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for half the season while he recovers from a torn ACL. Still, Harbaugh likes what he sees from the deep group.

"I thought our linebackers were dominating," Harbaugh said. "Patrick [Willis] as well. Corey Lemonier, you'll see that this is Year 2 for Corey, and Dan Skuta. Outstanding group there. I think [rookie] Aaron Lynch is going to be a real good player, too. He's shown some real good things before he hurt a hamstring. So that's a real position of, not only strength, but a position of dominance for us. Feel real good about that position."

Harbaugh had a great line on rookie linebacker Chris Borland: "Borland was … to quote Denny Green, 'he is who we thought he was.' He's that kind of player. He's done a very nice job."

Harbaugh is also quite thrilled with the depth on both the defensive and offensive lines.

Harbaugh pointed out the offseason performances of several players. The names that popped out to me included backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, running back LaMichael James and rookie defensive lineman Kaleb Ramsey. All three will be interesting to watch in training camp.

Harbaugh said veterans report to training camp July 23 and training camp practices start July 24. There will be three practices that will be held at new Levi's Stadium and will be open to the public. Those dates will be announced.

The 49ers will practice with the Baltimore Ravens in August after their preseason game August 7. Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters Thursday the Ravens hope to come out to visit the 49ers next year.

The final minicamp practice lasted 55 minutes.

Harbaugh will embark on his missionary trip to Peru on Saturday for the sixth straight year.
The San Francisco 49ers will have their mandatory minicamp from Tuesday-Thursday. Here’s some things to watch for:

Davis
Boone
Will Davis and Boone show? Both tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone have stayed away from the voluntary portion of the offseason. That’s over. Starting Tuesday, everything the 49ers do as a team is mandatory and each player can be fined if they aren’t present. Davis has said he “should be” at the minicamp. Boone has not said a word publicly about his plans. However, I’ve gotten the sense Boone is prepared not to show up until he gets a new deal. If neither player is at practice Tuesday, they will be holdouts and the stakes will change with their absences.

The cornerbacks: This is the biggest position of change. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are gone. Chris Culliver will start, but he is still working back from a torn ACL that kept him out all of last season. He should be fine for camp, but don’t expect him to go full-go in this camp. First-round pick Jimmie Ward is set to be the nickelback, but he is coming off a foot injury. He should be ready for training camp. A player of note in the minicamp is free-agent pickup Chris Cook. He will be in the rotation. Cook, who signed from Minnesota, has ideal size. He has looked good in the OTA sessions.

Offensive line: This unit, the pride and joy of the 49ers, should be fine in the long run, but it’s a little rough right now. Boone has been absent. Right tackle Anthony Davis is recovering from a shoulder injury and won’t be there until camp. Daniel Kilgore is taking over from Jonathan Goodwin and trying to hold off rookie Marcus Martin at center. Again, things will settle down, but don’t expect a well-oiled unit this week.

Passing game: Most of the receivers have been out during the voluntary sessions, mostly as precautions or for minor injuries. The passing game was rough in the OTA session that was open to the media last Tuesday. I’d expect to see more receivers during this camp, which is vital to help rhythm with quarterback Colin Kaepernick heading into training camp.

Inside linebackers: NaVorro Bowman is expected to be out until midseason as he recovers from a torn ACL. Michael Wilhoite has the inside shot to start for Bowman, but he will have to hold off Nick Moody and third-round pick Chris Borland.

Pass-rushers: Aldon Smith may face an NFL suspension. The 49ers need some extra pass-rush help. Keys to watch in camp is defensive lineman Tank Carradine, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and second-year player Corey Lemonier, who looks like he’s added several pounds of muscle. The 49ers would love to see these two young players show a burst in this camp.

Marcus Lattimore: The 49ers are slowly bringing along the 2013 fourth-round draft pick. He has done some things in the OTA session, including showing nice hands out of the backfield. I wouldn’t expect Lattimore to go full-go in this camp, but the 49ers want to see continued comfort, speed and confidence from Lattimore, whom they hope can help this season.
In his annual post-draft grades,Insider, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. gave two teams a high mark of an "A."

One team desperately needed it – the Jacksonville Jaguars. The other team that Kiper gave the top grade to was the San Francisco 49ers. Well, that’s just piling on. The 49ers, who also traded for standout receiver Stevie Johnson during the draft, entered the draft with perhaps the NFL’s finest roster. Well, it got a lot better.

Here is some of Kiper’s reasoning for giving the 49ers such a great grade: The Niners just got so many good players. Safety Jimmie Ward will cover, attack the line of scrimmage, and will play fast and fearless. If you call that a reach, remember that Arizona had taken Deone Bucannon at No. 27, so there were already three safeties off the board (not that Bucannon and Ward are that similar) and the 49ers knew if they didn't nab Ward there, they had no chance later. They got the No. 1 RB in the draft at No. 57. Frank Gore has a lot of miles on the odometer, LaMichael James may not be there long, and if Marcus Lattimore is your No. 1, you better have a 1-A. Carlos Hyde made sense and, again, he's the top RB in the draft. Marcus Martin is a future starter at center; Chris Borland gives immediate depth at linebacker and has the experience to play now. Brandon Thomas is another 49ers redshirt, but could be a star guard when he comes back (he hurt his knee this spring, but would have gone in Round 2 otherwise). Bruce Ellington isn't a far cry from Brandin Cooks, but he went 86 picks later. It goes on and on. Dontae Johnson is solid and Aaron Lynch has developmental promise. I even like the pick at No. 245 -- Trey Millard is the top fullback in the draft and was another guy who dropped on some boards after a knee injury. What I like about this draft is the 49ers are in a championship window, and they still managed to balance both the need for immediate help and also got a lot of talent for the future.

What stood out to me about the 49ers’ draft is that they scored so many players who can make an impact, but were available lower than projected. Those players include Hyde, Martin, Borland and Ellington. Truly, the rich got richer.

Meanwhile,Insider in an Insider piece, Todd McShay really likes two 49ers’ picks a lot.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The pick: Chris Borland, inside linebacker, Wisconsin.

My take: The San Francisco 49ers are having quite the day. Borland, like Carlos Hyde and Marcus Martin, can help right away. He was a star at Wisconsin. He is a durable tackle machine and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He may be able to help with star NaVorro Bowman out for the first half of the season with a torn ACL. Borland should be a fine backup to Bowman and Patrick Willis in the next few seasons and then perhaps play more. Willis turns 30 next year.

Not a typical Baalke pick: 49ers general manager Trent Baalke is famous for gravitating to players with long arms. The knock on Borland is his short arms.

What's next: Two more picks tonight -- No. 94 and No. 100. Cornerbacks and receivers anyone? Hello?

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